The rise of digital course materials

Throughout 2014, students at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California, purchased 42 ebook versions of course materials. This spring semester, the number was up to 199.


Throughout 2014, students at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California, purchased 42 ebook versions of course materials. This spring semester, the number was up to 199.

Granted, those are small numbers, but they point to a dramatic shift: “We know the digital age is coming,” said Sylvia Martinez, Chaffey’s textbook buyer. “It’s not here yet, especially for us as a junior college. But it’s just around the corner.”

Making the transition to digital course materials is something all auxiliary professionals must be ready to deal with. Need proof? Look no further than to other industries that have aggressively confronted the digital transformation.

“If you look outside of higher education to newspapers, radio, TV, cable companies, you see what happens if they don’t respond to changes: they become obsolete,” said Ed Cabellon, assistant to the vice president for student affairs for Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Cabellon also co-chairs the Digital Technology Task Force for the American College Personnel Association. “What are the outside threats from digital technology that could take over if we’re not part of the digital revolution? It’s here. It’s a question of how quickly we can adapt to what students are looking for.”

Problem Solvers

Cabellon knows first-hand the potential of digital course delivery. During this year’s harsh winter, physical classes were cancelled, but “that didn’t stop the learning from happening,” he said. “Professors digitized materials and delivered it online. We’ve seen more faculty digitizing their PowerPoint presentations, recording lectures or a video and uploading it. I’d say we’re seeing more of that along with allowing a digital copy of a book versus a physical copy.”

And that is where the true power lies in this shift to digital: instructor acceptance. But that does not mean there is no role for auxiliary professionals.

“This used to be driven by the instructors,” Martinez said. “If we saw sales, it was because the instructor was promoting it in class. Now, we have a new platform on our website, and we’re seeing huge growth.”

Chaffey has pushed to make textbooks more affordable to students, including offering rentals as well as ebooks. Ebooks, she estimates, pro-vide about 30 to 50 percent savings over physical books.

“Our students are very price-conscious,” she said. “Jared Ceja, our director, wants us to offer different choices on all of our books. He doesn’t want us to be left behind.”

That means a strong rental offering. And with digital course materials, he wants his team to lead. “He wants us to be more involved and to seek training from the different publishers on their platforms,” Martinez said. “He’s constantly talking to us about staying involved and keeping up to date with everything that is going on.”

That, Cabellon said, will be the key to surviving the digital transformation for auxiliary professionals.

“They absolutely could take some online courses on some of this material, or local courses,” he said. “It’s important to expand the professional networks and not just the folks that they are familiar with through NACAS. Get to know the people who do this at the institutional level, like communications and IT. Offer them a free lunch and ask about the critical pieces that you need to be aware of. Resistance comes because they have this belief on their campus that they can’t do any of this.”

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A Shifting Student Body

If there is one key driver of digital technology, it is younger people. While Chaffey still has a mix of older students—who are much more resistant to ebooks, Martinez said—younger students are not only comfortable with it, they expect it.

“They’ve been using social media tools since middle school,” said Josie Ahlquist, a student affairs educator who focuses on the intersection of digital technology and leadership development.

Despite the comfort with technology, they have high expectations, Ahlquist said. “If something lives digitally, it is a more accessible tool for them to purchase or rent. The purchase of physical textbooks—especially if they’re not used in a way the student has found beneficial—becomes difficult. The same holds true for digital, whether that is modules or other sources. You have to make sure that it is a worthwhile experience and a long-term tool.”

Students these days, though, want more of the interactivity that digital offers, whether that is connection with the instructor via social media or delving more deeply into a topic on YouTube.

“Most students feel they want to have as many resources as possible that could aid in learning,” Ahlquist said. “That includes courses they have face-to-face or online and virtual. The first thing they’re going to do when they don’t have an answer is Google it. Ideally, you make a virtual resource that is a first source that you want your student looking into, or you’re able to curate your content in order for your search results to come up so that your results will come up first.”

As institutions add more online learning capabilities including digital course material, it will become increasingly important to ensure that infra-structure is there, Ahlquist said. That may mean making sure all students have access to computers or tablets and keeping the Internet at a capacity to watch videos.

The Role of Auxiliary Services

As digital technology becomes more widely available—and expected—the wise auxiliary professional will look for ways to shift the traditional bookstore model.

At Chaffey, that has meant connecting with publisher representatives for training so that the auxiliary professionals can assist students with minor technical issues. Until recently—when Chaffey’s bookstore upgraded their point-of-sale system—a shelf talker was placed alongside the physical book to indicate an electronic version was available. Students purchased the electronic version at the bookstore. Now, it’s available for online purchase with an instant download on the bookstore’s website. The Chaffey bookstore receives a commission for the sale.

While the bookstore staff does not offer highly technical assistance with ebook sales, Martinez and her peers have sought out training from publisher representatives so that they can better help students. If the issue is complex, calling the support line may be in order. “A lot of times, it’s just a simple question or they’re doing something wrong,” Martinez said. “It’s one of our goals for us to be able to help students so they come to us first.”

That’s not always an easy answer as e-publishing has not yet coalesced around one set of standards. Each publisher’s programs may work slightly differently. And that can make it challenging for students, auxiliary services, and professors.

“There are some instructors who have adopted some technologies that don’t seem to work for the class, so they dropped that or changed that book,” Martinez said. “Some of them were discouraged because it didn’t do what they wanted it to do. But it’s largely up to them to decide. If they ask us, we can help them make contact with the publisher representatives to make sure they get what they need for the classroom.”

Such growing pains are likely part of the process as technology evolves rapidly. But acceptance already has come a long way in just a few short years, Cabellon believes.

“When I spoke to a group in 2012, this was something that most folks understood but weren’t willing to accept. They thought it was a fad. If we realize what it could provide and how it could help students, they’d be more willing to adapt to this. Some of the senior auxiliary service leaders are going to have to be courageous. It’s not going to be popular. But if you think about long-term sustainability, the shift has to start taking place in a meaningful way.”


Sandy Smith
Sandy Smith is a writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she fully understands the disruptive force thatdigital technology can be on any industry. She focuses her work in industry associations and business-to-business communications.

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